LOS ANGELES – Before this October, most of the talk about the Houston Astros’ infield stars focused on the double play combo of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.
The postseason has expanded that conversation.
Alex Bregman’s game-winning single in the Astros’ 13-12 victory in Sunday’s epic Game 5 of the World Series provided the latest indication the second-year third baseman has arrived as yet another force in Houston’s formidable infield.
“You’re talking about a 23-year-old kid who plays like a 30-year-old veteran,’’ Altuve said presciently before the game. “He hits homers, he steals bases. I remember when I was 23 and I wasn’t as good as him, so I feel like he’s going to be a superstar.’’
The signs of Bregman’s emergence have been evident throughout the postseason, though at times they’ve been outshined by the brilliance of Altuve and Correa.
Earlier in Sunday’s game, it was Bregman’s gritty 10-pitch walk that ended the night for Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace who left with runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth. Altuve greeted reliever Kenta Maeda with a three-run homer that tied the game 7-7.
The previous night, Bregman had charged a Chris Taylor chopper, caught it on the short hop and fired a strike to catcher Brian McCann to cut down Austin Barnes trying to score from third, preserving a 0-0 tie in the sixth.
The fearless play, eventually lost in the blur of a Dodgers’ five-run ninth that propelled them to a 6-2 victory that deadlocked the series at 2-2, was reminiscent of another defensive gem Bregman delivered in the American League Championship Series.
With the Astros ahead 1-0 in Game 7, he moved quickly on a slow Todd Frazier bouncer and threw to the only place where he could prevent the New York Yankees’ Greg Bird from scoring, right into McCann’s mitt just in front of home plate. Bird slid into an out and Houston went on to win 4-0 to claim the second pennant in its history.
Photos: Astros' Alex Bregman shines in World Series
“He's not scared at all,’’ said Justin Verlander, who will start Tuesday’s Game 6 at Dodger Stadium as the Astros look to clinch their first World Series title. “I think you can see in some of the defensive plays he's made and some of the home runs he's hit against the pitchers that he hit them against, he thrives in big moments. When the pressure is on he's a guy you want in your corner.’’
Indeed, the four home runs Bregman has hit in October have come against a who’s who of the majors’ pitchers. He twice victimized Cy Young Award candidate Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox in the division series, and has gone deep against Kershaw and fellow All-Star Kenley Jansen in the World Series.
On Sunday, Bregman not only came through in the 10th inning against Jansen, sending the Minute Maid Park crowd into a frenzy and his teammates rushing out of the dugout in unrestrained joy, but he smacked the elite closer’s signature cutter.
Bregman’s approach in that at-bat lends some insight into his baseball intellect.
“I saw him last night and he threw me a slider and I was fortunate enough to put a good swing on it, and hit it out of the yard,’’ Bregman recalled of his Game 4 homer. “I basically eliminated the slider and I said, I need to get a pitch that I can stay on top of, because he's a guy that throws high cutters, and a guy that gets a lot of fly-ball outs.’’
He avoided that fate by lining a low cutter over the shortstop to drive in the 25th and final run of an unforgettable game.
Bregman’s quick route to success has not surprised the Astros, who took him second overall in the 2015 draft out of college baseball powerhouse LSU, where he was a shortstop. With Correa entrenched at the position, Bregman made a smooth transition to third, where he doesn’t so much field grounders as he attacks them.
Bregman, listed as 6 feet tall but likely a bit shorter, plays with an edge that reminds Verlander of Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox’s hard-nosed second baseman. Bregman’s not afraid to run some 150 feet and smash against the left-field railing in pursuit of a popup, as he did earlier in the series, or to stand in against the game’s hardest throwers without giving an inch.
His toughness stems partly from growing up in a politically active family in Albuquerque, N.M. Bregman’s parents are lawyers, and his father, Sam, is the chairman of the state’s Democratic party. Sam’s father, Stanley Bregman, was the general counsel for the Washington Senators.
The toughness is also rooted in a competitive nature that longtime manager Jim Leyland appreciated as he guided Team USA to the championship of this year’s World Baseball Classic.
As one of the team’s youngest and least-experience players, Bregman saw little action behind third baseman Nolan Arenado and shortstop Brandon Crawford, but was still the first to show up to the ballpark every day.
“He handled everything terrific,’’ Leyland said. “He’s one hell of a player. He’s very aggressive both on offense and defense. He comes every day to beat you. I really like him a lot.’’
Bregman also displayed his caring side during the Series as he, along with several other teammates, defended Yuli Gurriel’s character after the Cuban-born first baseman was chastised for making a slant-eyes gesture in reference to Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, who is Japanese.
Bregman speaks Spanish well enough to use it in news media interviews, and his relationship with Gurriel – his locker mate – allowed him to provide valuable perspective in the middle of a news media firestorm.
“He’s a great guy, a great teammate,’’ Bregman said of Gurriel. “He messed up, and I guarantee you if you asked around the league, he’s very well respected by the players. They know how good of a guy he is.’’
Recently, casual fans are finding out how good of a player Bregman is. He batted .284 with 19 homers, 71 RBI and an .827 on-base plus slugging percentage during the regular season, which are strong enough credentials.
But there’s nothing like the postseason to raise a player’s profile, particularly when he comes through at critical times. Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Bregman’s combination of confidence, work ethic and skill makes him well suited for those situations.
“We trust him in the big moments because he's going to put up a good at-bat,’’ Hinch said. “And he's going to stay composed and he's going to get a good pitch to hit. More times than not he feels like he's going to deliver, and that's hard to do at this level. But he's certainly doing things that are special.’’